Jawad al-Ghezzi still doesn't know which of his "buddies" on the construction crew last Sept. 13 spray painted "Go Home Terrorist" on his car. Still he spent the last year proving the shadow vandal wrong.
Since he and his wife moved to a new house last November he has followed the script of Suburban American Man: "greening" the lawn with Scotts and dolomite, digging flower beds and haunting the Home Depot.
"Hola, amigo," he said to his new neighbors when they dropped by, to preempt the neighborly "Where are you from?" If they asked he'd say "Mesopotamia," and hope for a blank smile. He had his number unlisted and failed to pass it on to his crew of Iraqi friends. "I don't want any trouble," he said.
He is not one of those Arab men who've had the FBI repeatedly knock at his door. Yet al-Ghezzi still lives every day as if his loyalty were being questioned, as if every act -- whether he keeps a box cutter in his pocket at work, whether he skips lunch this month for Ramadan, what he names his daughter and chooses to hang over her crib -- were taking place on a stage, with a critical audience judging.
What eludes him is anonymity, a luxury now reserved for the Mexican and Filipino immigrants on al-Ghezzi's construction crew, who unlike him, are left alone to slowly make peace, over the course of a lifetime, with the split identity shadowing most immigrants. And who, unlike the patrons of the mosques and Arab restaurants that al-Ghezzi now avoids, do not have to worry about endlessly demonstrating their loyalty in a nation still consumed by the threat of terrorism.
For Arab Americans, carefully and self-consciously choosing the public face they present to their neighbors is a fact of life since Sept. 11, 2001. And that caution is not confined to Seattle, a city that prides itself on tolerance and an absence of immigrant ghettos. Throughout the country now "there is a sense that somebody's watching," said Muneer Ahmad, an American University law professor who has studied the effect of racial profiling. "Even in private interactions, at the dinner table, families will warn each other about what to say and how to say it."
How they have responded to that anxiety parallels the experience of another ethnic group that faced hostility and suspicion: Japanese Americans during World War II. Faced with loyalty hearings and confinement to internment camps, Japanese Americans after the war gravitated toward two poles -- "extra assimilationist" and those who "clung to their ethnic identity," such as the famous "no-no boys" who refused to swear allegiance to the United States and instead went to jail, said Leti Volpp, author of the essay, "Citizen and the Terrorist."
If al-Ghezzi is an example of the first response, Mansour Alfallah, a Libyan-born student at the University of Washington, is his opposite, someone who has reaffirmed his Muslim identity. "God is sending us a test," he concluded after his landlady was suddenly nasty to him, his professors began ducking at the sight of him and his wife was shifted rudely from line to line at the supermarket. He would meet the test, he decided, by finally speaking his mind about the short skirts and fatherless babies he saw in his adopted country, by finding some way to send his children to a Muslim school he couldn't really afford.
And, on the anniversary of Sept. 11, when someone asked him to speak at a campus forum, he stopped censoring his views. "I don't like Osama bin Laden. I don't hate him," he told the astonished students. "I don't like the president. I don't hate him."
Strains Closer to Home
Seattle has a community of about 40,000 Muslims, many drawn here by jobs at Microsoft Corp. and other software companies. Even if their wives wear hijabs, or head scarves, they wear jeans and polo shirts to work and go by names like "Riz" and "Mo." Like most West Coast cities, Seattle experienced Sept. 11 remotely. But by summer it had hit closer to home. In August, FBI wiretaps picked up terrorists calling Seattle an "easy target." Then federal agents began investigating members of a downtown mosque for harboring a terrorist cell and scouting an al Qaeda training camp in a remote ranch town in southern Oregon. One member of the mosque, James Ujaama, was arrested in September.
Ujaama is an American, born and raised in Seattle. Locals who knew him found the government's picture of him implausible. Soon after that story repeated itself, in Lackawanna, N.Y., in Portland, Ore. After each bust, the suspect's friends were incredulous; these are American citizens, they protested, and grounded here: an Army veteran, a soccer coach, a computer programmer, one who was voted "friendliest student" in his high school graduating class.
"God, you don't know who to trust," said a friend of al-Ghezzi's wife, after news of the Portland cell broke. And the next day, Jawad pulled out his cleanest white polo to wear to work.
At their trim little ranch house, there are reminders that an Arab lives here. But they are mostly Patricia's doing. She named the new cats Shatana and Shabah and urged them to play nicely with Bobby and Missy, the other cats. She put up an Allah plaque in the kitchen, learned to make yellow rice with onions and cumin so Jawad could eat it with ketchup.
Sept. 11 or not, al-Ghezzi probably would have been one of those immigrants who chooses to whitewash his foreignness. He would have fallen in love with the former Patricia Ross. He would have worn blizzard white polos with sweat pants.
But he might not have tried to sign up for the U.S. Army to fight in Iraq, knowing the enemy combatants include several of his nephews (they rejected him as too old). He might not have cut off all of his closest friends overnight.
All this does not feel weird to him. Weird to him are his Iraqi friends who only speak Arabic to other Arabs, shop in the Arab grocery stores, "who are not really putting down roots here but just marking time until they can go home."
Weird to him is his cousin, his only relative in America, who since Sept. 11 has turned really religious, and won't let his American wife go for a quick trip to the grocery store without wearing her hijab, who "just has a hard time knowing where he fits in here," said Patricia.
Jawad, by contrast, "rolls with the punches," she said, although she admits that "like most Arab guys he keeps a lot of stuff in."
At work he's given up trying to explain to his fellow construction workers that he comes from a strain of Islam at odds with Osama bin Laden's version, and that his village in the south of Iraq was punished for rebelling against Saddam Hussein.
He used to teach the American guys Arabic phrases, mostly curses. But now he barely talks to them; there are guys he's worked with for six months who have no idea where he's from.
"You have to be tough, or they'll eat you alive," he said.
'God Is Testing Them'
It might seem that greater success in America would mean easy assimilation. But often the opposite's true. Self-separation, as it turns out, is a luxury of the more privileged, noted Elise Goldwasser in her study of North Carolina Muslims. The newer working-class immigrants in the study were intimidated, scrambling to fit in. The doctors and lawyers were settled and comfortable enough to realize America is a nation that defers to separate identities, and especially victimized ones.
In the last year, Muslim vice presidents at Microsoft started dozens of empowerment groups: M-pac and M-power and Habitat for Humanity branches to "get Muslims active in American community life." A Muslim graduate student born in Seattle is contemplating an eyebrow ring to complement her nose ring and head scarf, "to show them being Muslim can have its advantages too.
"People think when a religion is being vilified they will obviously become more moderate," said Yvonne Haddad of Georgetown University. "In fact, often the opposite tends to happen. The religious think God is testing them, and they become more involved in the faith."
Mansour Alfallah could not yet be called privileged. He is an immigrant clawing his way to a new life in America, recently married and raising three kids on no salary. But he lives in a kind of protected zone, as a computer student at the University of Washington; on his way to class he passes sidewalk graffiti that says "Stop racial profiling."
He's been here 12 years, long enough to start feeling settled in America. Before Sept. 11, 2001, he prayed regularly, told his three children about the Koran. But he didn't much mind that the shelves of Arabic tapes in his study were being crowded out by such titles as "PC for Dummies" and "How to Fix a Computer." He knew if he could master their jargon, it would be his ticket out of a house that will soon feel too small for him, his wife and three young kids.
On that day, and for a couple of weeks after, Alfallah watched more TV than he ever had in his life. Day after day he witnessed a stream of Muslim "leaders" saying some version of "Islam is peace" in a way that sounded to him like an apology.
"Come on, man," he'd yell to the TV, like it was a football game. "They're gonna read the Koran and figure out you're a liar. Tell them Moses fights for the Promised Land. Jesus uses the sword. Don't be like, 'no, no, no, I'm so sorry, guys.' Like you shamed."
Then he stopped watching any TV, CNN included, in order to clear his head of its "deceptions," and properly assess his situation. Unfogged, he recovered his deepest passion, born on the day, 15 years ago, when as a young Libyan soldier he emptied his gun in the desert and refused to fight for the Libyan army "because Allah did not give me the right to kill people."
Guys at school, American guys, kept asking him questions about Islam, terrorism, Osama bin Laden. If they were going to make him an expert he'd be one, and unlike those TV Muslims he would be a shame-free Muslim.
Once, down time at school meant huddling with his computer buddies musing over the merits of Windows versus Linux. Now he passed his time between classes walking up to women wearing short skirts or spaghetti straps and saying: "Do you come here to study or you come here to do a show with your body. I mean, come on, man." Sometimes he added a feminist twist, telling them they were "wasting their money for some man."
He never liked his required psychology classes but he used to sit quietly through them. Now he voiced his objections: "I hate this man," he said the day they were reading Freud. "He is always talking about the sex, the sex. Tell me something from the Bible that's okay. But this? Don't you see there is women in the class? I feel shame."
The day this fall when he expressed his ambivalence about bin Laden, the student he was talking to responded: Did he like being here at all?
Well, most of his life he spent escaping from Moammar Gaddafi's men, who first plucked him out of the university and then chased him for his rebelliousness. Here he can "go to school and no one will bother me." Here he can go from being a janitor at a gas station to a computer technician, and the government will support him while he does it. Here there is a "system" he can complain to if something goes wrong.
"I can't say it's a hundred percent good, but it's definitely better than over there," is what he said.
Hussein's Gas Chamber
Ten years ago Jawad al-Ghezzi was one of Saddam Hussein's guinea pigs, locked in a mustard gas chamber with two other soldiers to measure the chemical's effects on humans. Now the scars on his arms where his skin shriveled up are the reminders he carries with him of his native country.
When his daughter was born last November, Patricia wanted to name her Jamila after the aunt who raised Jawad. But he vetoed it, saying it sounded too Arabic. Instead they picked Tahani, which is also Arabic but which he figured could sound Hawaiian, like Halani or Maui.
Now he's an "American-style dad," he said. He changes diapers. He sits on the floor and reads "Brown Bear" a hundred times. Despite his wife's repeated reminders, he always "forgets" to talk to his daughter in Arabic. "She's an American first," he said. "I don't want to handicap her."
No TV, No American Toys
The Alfallahs' living room decorations point to a different theme: red tinsel spells Allah on the wall, and the shelves above the sink are crowded with plastic flowers in his honor. Otherwise the room is a bare except for a couple of mattresses and some Arabic Legos on the floor.
One afternoon after classes Mansour prayed facing the door, his voice muffled by the traffic outside the window. His 4-year-old son Hudeifa came racing over and jumped on his back like a monkey. Mansour whacked him and banished him, wailing, to his room.
"Discipline," he said, "is the key."
In their adopted country full of temptations they have to start early. Mansour has heard stories of Muslim kids gone wrong in America, and he repeats them like fairy tales.
"I know one family, the father is a big doctor and they moved to Arizona and she make a boyfriend and she come back late with him and she say this is my life now, dad."
"And some fathers they will kill her. People in America will say this is wrong, but if it happens sometimes you can not control yourself."
In less than a minute Hudeifa was back with his fingers in the pistachios, and Mansour was too busy talking to stop him. There is no TV in this house, no American toys or even cereals. Yet Hudeifa jetted around and around the living room shouting "Superman, S-ooooo-perman," the stuff of American culture already bouncing around in his head.
On Saturday mornings Mansour's wife Asma'a teaches Islamic classes to teenagers. "Imagine a river washing over you, that is what it's like when you pray five times a day," she told the eight or so boys and girls whose parents sent them to the Evergreen mosque on this beautiful afternoon.
When they broke from Koran studies, the teenagers talked about the start of the school year. Asma'a got a taste of how difficult it is for Muslim parents to shield their children as they grow older.
One of her students, Afiah Khan, said that this year she's finding "lots of reasons why I wish I weren't Muslim." Right before school started she got her period, which meant she would have to start wearing her hijab. "And my dad was like why don't you just wait and put it on after" -- meaning after the anniversary of Sept. 11 -- "and I was like it's stupid to put it on and off and on again," so she just wore it.
But it was hard. Her friends have started to wear cool clothes now, leaving her only to imagine how she might look in them. One day she went to the dressing room and sneaked in some bellbottoms and a really tight shirt just to see how they would look.
"You know, you can wear it at home," Asma'a suggested, and then told Khan something intended to make her feel better about being a Muslim.
"I hear in many states if a girl is still a virgin they send her to the police or to the psychologist," she said.
"What, no way," the girls in the class responded. "Maybe in some Arab country they do stuff like that, but not here."
Asma'a can see problems ahead. She has heard stories about men with Muslim-sounding names having trouble finding jobs, especially in the shrinking computer market. She knows some day, maybe soon, her kids will have American friends. She knows, even, that this will not be the last time God will test them. But now she's prepared.
"If God wants me to be harmed, he will send someone to harm me even in my own kitchen. If he wants me safe, he will keep me safe, even if I am surrounded."
Waiting for the Words
Jawad sits in front of a coffee table piled with photos reminding him of who he really is. This is the latest batch from the family in Iraq, portraits from a family wedding. They came with a letter asking for some photos from Jawad, of his life, his wife, his new daughter. And in fact Patricia has already assembled the envelope, slipped in the studio portraits of Tahani, put in a blank note for Jawad to write something in Arabic.
But somehow he just keeps forgetting to do it. What would he tell them about? His lawn? The Home Depot? When what they told him is that one of their neighbors had sold the windows and door of his house to feed his kids. And what they implied, without saying because surely those letters are read, is that the nephews are getting ready to fight in a war, and they are terrified.
So instead, Jawad slipped the pictures under "Brown Bear" went into the living room and turned on some Celine Dion. He picked up Tahani and swung her close to his face.
"You wanna go to Iraq with me, habibi?" he asked, meaning little buddy.
A noncomprehending squint back.
"So you don't want to go?"
"Okay, then we'll just go to the Costco."